Egypt pours military into North Sinai
(CNN) — Gunmen attacked a police station Thursday in North Sinai, firing several rounds, the latest in a string of violence raging in the area.
Egypt sent in a huge convoy of military reinforcements in hopes of bringing security and stability. Heavy equipment including bulldozers and cranes were brought in to help block smuggling tunnels into the Palestinian territory of Gaza.
A police station that burned down during the uprising in Egypt in January of last year reopened Thursday “to restore law and order back to the highly sensitive area of Sheikh Zuweid, where recent clashes took place between the army and armed militants,” said Gen. Ahmed Bakr, head of North Sinai security.
The developments come days after 16 Egyptian soldiers were killed and seven others were wounded when assailants with semiautomatic weapons and hand grenades stole two armored vehicles from Egyptian forces and tried to enter Israel.
Egypt’s military leadership, the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, said there were 35 assailants — terrorist factions from Gaza — involved in the attack Sunday near the Rafah border crossing.
The Israeli military killed eight of the attackers at the border, Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak said.
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Egypt shut the border indefinitely.
An Egyptian general who works in intelligence in North Sinai told CNN, “There is a high probability that those who committed the Sunday massacre of the 16 soldiers are members of Palestinian Islamic Jaljala Army, which is a group considered an offshoot of Hamas but with more radical beliefs. They are a force in the hundreds after their leader Abdel Latif Moussa was killed in 2009 for announcing a Palestinian in Emirate in Gaza, challenging Hamas’ authority.”
Hamas controls the tunnels into Egypt, so the attackers must have informed Hamas, the general said. And the attackers “must have received assistance from Bedouin in Sinai for logistical support, motivated by money.”
The general also said Israeli intelligence agency Mossad provided Egyptian intelligence with a list of nine names of terrorists connected to the attack, who are members of a group called Al Tawhid Wal Jihad, based in Gaza and Sinai.
Israel has blamed militants associated with a jihadist group for the attack.
No group has claimed responsibility.
Israel has handed over the charred remains of six assailants to Egypt, and the remains have been transferred to the Forensic Department in Cairo University for DNA tests in an attempt to identify the perpetrators, according to State TV.
Ibrahim Al Menei, who owns several tunnels into Gaza, told CNN there are no more than 10 tunnels in Rafah that people can move through. “No one comes through without Hamas’ knowledge,” and all who cross have to pay a fee to Hamas, he said.
“The Egyptian authorities know about these tunnels,” he said. “Why don’t they ever block them is the question. They spoke about drowning them with water … but they never implemented it. A lot of these tunnels have five to seven exit points and are around 200 meters. You can enter Sinai from Gaza in 15 minutes.”
The violence this week has been relentless.
Masked gunmen launched six simultaneous attacks in North Sinai early Wednesday, wounding five security officers and a civilian. Targets included five security checkpoints and a military cement factory, Bakr said.
Egyptian forces responded with aerial strikes aimed at militants.
Army Apache helicopters fired rockets Wednesday, and there were numerous casualties, Bakr said. State-run Nile TV reported that aerial strikes killed at least 20 in the port town of El Arish.
The violence has spiked because jihadists in the region see “an opportunity,” said Adam Raisman, a senior analyst with the SITE Intelligence Group, which monitors jihadist groups.
“They see that what they wanted from the Egyptian revolution has not come to fruition. They wanted a sharia-based government,” Raisman said. Angry with new Egyptian President Mohamed Morsy for not building a fundamentalist government, jihadists “decided to become active now, taking advantage of the tumult in the region and playing on people’s desires for this,” he said.
Morsy resigned from the Islamist Muslim Brotherhood after winning the presidential election, promising to be a president to all.
Jihadist elements in the Sinai region express solidarity with Palestinian groups “and espouse the same beliefs and the same goals,” Raisman said.
There could be a more complicated plan behind the recent attack, according to Elliott Abrams, senior fellow for Middle Eastern studies at the Council on Foreign Relations: to drive a wedge between the new Egyptian government and the military.
The military has been cooperating with Israel, particularly on intelligence matters involving jihadists in the Sinai. But the Muslim Brotherhood — the dominant party in the new Egyptian government — sees Israel as the enemy and is not comfortable with that cooperation.
As this kind of violence spirals, the military has more reason to cooperate with Israel, angering the Brotherhood even more.
“This drives a wedge between the army and the Brotherhood,” Abrams said.
“The jihadists benefit from having chaos in Sinai because then they can operate there. If there’s a crisis between the Brotherhood and the military, the military won’t be able to operate effectively in Sinai — and that will keep it as a kind of ungoverned area that the jihadis can use.”
And if jihadists manage to get into Israel and kill people, “and Israelis go after them in hot pursuit, they (Israelis) are violating Egyptian sovereignty — and that creates a crisis between Israel and Egypt,” which could cause even more chaos in the region, said Abrams.
Egypt has the military strength to stop the jihadists in Sinai, said Raisman.
And the violence presents Morsy with an opportunity, says Patrick Skinner, a senior associate with The Soufan Group, which tracks global security issues.
Since the Sunday attack was solely against Egyptians and did not kill Israelis, standing up against the perpetrators “will make him look stronger” to Egyptians, Skinner said. It can be “unifying.”
It also “really helps his relationship with the Israelis,” Skinner added.
The Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, issued a statement Wednesday saying that the operation targeting “armed terrorist elements” in Sinai “has accomplished this task with complete success.”
Two security sources who did not want to be identified because they are not authorized to speak to the media told CNN that militants are concentrated in Jabal Al Halal in mid-Sinai. They are armed with rocket-propelled grenades, anti-aircraft guns and other weapons, including land mines, the sources said.
Security forces had failed in previous attempts to enter what is referred to as Al Halal Mountain, the sources said. But air assaults killed many of the militants, they said.
Still, land mines and the potential for ambushes made it difficult to enter the area using ground vehicles, they said.
Khaled Fouda, the governor of Southern Sinai, declared a state of emergency in all state sectors in the province, including a reduction in the number of tourist buses in order to ensure vehicles servicing tourists will be guarded.
A political shakeup occurred amid the violence. The state-run Middle East News Agency said that the governor of Northern Sinai was sacked and that a new general intelligence agency head was chosen after his predecessor received an “early” retirement.
Sinai has long had its own identity, with many inhabitants — particularly Bedouins — not considering themselves Egyptians. They complain of a heavy-handed Egyptian state intruding on their terrain, providing large tracts of land to Cairo-based businessmen and investors, and failing to involve them in developing the region’s prosperity.
During last year’s revolution, Sinai inhabitants attacked police stations, particularly in El Arish. Security forces have detained scores of Bedouins accused of involvement in a string of terrorist bombings in Sinai between 2004 and 2006.
Also, Egyptian security sources said 23,000 prisoners escaped during the revolution, and only a third have been apprehended. Many of those on the loose are believed to have fled to Sinai.
In addition to weapons, drugs are smuggled through the area.
Journalists Mohamed Fadel Fahmy and Ian Lee and CNN’s Josh Levs, Ben Wedeman, and Joe Sterling contributed to this report.